Saturday, December 17, 2016


Slang and idiomatic expression find their way into the language the way crafty patrons, waiting to bypass the bouncers at night clubs and restaurants, discover devious ways inside. 

One such expression, "on the nose," is not to be confused with a bet on a particular horse to win a particular race, although, after years of observing a father who was the recipient of such bets, and substituting at times for said father in taking such bets and phoning them in to the central bookkeeping source in downtown Santa Monica, you came to know the term in that context. 

When "on the nose" came your way again, the conditions had to do with writing radio and television drama and, briefly, television comedy, in the sense that a description or explanation was "too much on the nose," making it a term of derision if not outright scorn, a substitute expression for "too literal" or, worse yet, "telling me more about the subject than I want to know."

Later still, when you had the opportunity to collaborate with one of the more accomplished humorists, "on the nose" became truncated to OTN which, when you heard it from him, was often accompanied with a sad shake of the head as a sign to move on to the next moment of dramatic movement.

"Too much on the nose" not only means a response is too literal, too lacking in any sort of nuance or, better still, innuendo; "too much on the nose" means a condition needlessly explained to the point where persons in the vicinity begin looking for the nearest exit.

Drama and story tolerate detail only when said detail reemerges later in the form of a surprise, obstacle, or ironic reversal that produces in the viewer or reader either a laugh or the idiosyncratic sound of an involuntary expulsion of breath, a sound similar to an individual being punched in the solar plexus. 

Anything else is reminiscent of a bit of arcana you learned when substituting for your father as the transcriber of bets on various thoroughbred race horses. Such horses, depending on previous performances, were given handicaps, five-pound weights attached to their saddle.

Some prose is handicapped with weighty descriptions of things few readers would care about, with unnecessary explanations which turn out to be the verbal equivalents of the nudge and/or wink, as in "Get it?"

Things in Real Time approximate being too much on the nose only because, in your belief, many of us have reservations about seeming too taciturn, too devoid of opinion, too eager to make sure we are being understood. All too true; being understood is no small triumph. Rather, being understood is a condition that provokes comedy, drama, humor, and, ultimately, dissent, all conditions we enter with the same caution as a surfer entering an ocean afflicted at the moment with rip tides.

The great irony with being too much on the nose is the tendency to overexplain, hopeful of being understood.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Response, the Traces of DNA Found in Story

The appearance and continued, sophisticated development of DNA technology has been a major development in law enforcement forensics, both in actual crime-scene circumstances and crime fiction. 

Deoxyriboneucleic acid, which appears in humans and almost all other organisms,carries genetic information which may be used as a source for identifying an individual.

A splat of blood, a drop of saliva, a bead of sweat have figured in actual cases where identity was an issue, and in more than one narrative or filmed drama, such traces have been accepted as evidence that has determined the guilt or innocence of an individual. 

DNA technology is so persuasive now, that scenes in TV dramas are common to the point of cliche when a suspect, previously firm on his innocence, admits guilt if confronted with a DNA match. 

In Philip Roth's disturbing novel, The Human Stain, the critical DNA is semen, which leads to a conclusion where DNA not only provides dramatic closure, it provides poetic justice as well. In The Human Stain. other fictions, and in many a real-life situation, DNA becomes in metaphor more than evidence, it is an unimpeachable response.

Throughout its long history, story contains significant response as a component of its own deoxyribonucleic acid; the manner and degree to which characters respond to events and to one another become the forces that drive story along the path toward some form of outcome.

At one time you were aware of standing before a group of students enrolled at the graduate level, wanting guidance and direction as they related to being able to produce sustainable story with some measure of regularity. 

"There is the plot-driven story," you said, then went on to explain how the character, on some form of quest, took steps which led to a series of accelerating consequences which must be dealt with before the character can walk out of the landscape with hide intact.

"Then," you said, "there is the character-driven story, in which events drive the character and you. However similar the starting goal or condition, you as writer and your characters take their clues from the responses elicited as the exchanges of dialogue, the internal, and external conditions become more intense and unforeseeable."

You don't regret either definition. What you regret is your own lack of follow-through where response is concerned. No telling now how young you were when you first read Owen Wister's ground-breaking novel, The Virginian, with its eponymous protagonist, seated at a poker game with Trampas, the novel's antagonist. 

It is now time for the Virginian to bet or leave the hand. Trampas tells him, "Your turn to bet, you son-of-a--" 

Whereupon the Virginian reaches for his gun and, without aiming it, places it on the table before uttering one of the most famous responses in all of Western literature, "When you call me that, smile."

Response is the follow-up to a word, an offer, a suggestion, a dare; it sets the tempo for the next beat, the next action or thought or line of dialogue' it is the response to the first four notes of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5;it is story, caught in action, considering whether to bet or leave the hand.

You wish you'd taken the matter of response to the next level. "If there is too much space between responses, story pauses, looks about nervously for some form of exit and, with all too much frequency, reverts to description and explanation when none are necessary."

When you talk to students about unnecessary adverbial support in dialogue--"If you come any closer, I'll shoot," she said menacingly.--you always get a nervous laugh in response because the example is so preposterous in its obviousness.

You wish for the certainty of laughter when you talk about the pacing of responses. But when class is over, you rush home to look at the spacing of your own responses in whatever happens to be in progress.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Just a Moment Longer

When talk turns to the dominant constituents of story, characters and their fondest dreams or their most significant vulnerability seem to take over the conversation, sometimes with a visible gesture to suggest the superiority of the character-driven story over the plot-driven narrative. 

Any other position in the matter seems to bring in the baseball metaphor of "from left field," or the more civics minded trope of "from way out in the boondocks."

In the baseball analogy, left field means some distance from either reality or context; boondocks connote s one distance from civilized, city persons and, by implication, a remoteness from the sophistication of urban living.

Nevertheless, a narrative with any pretense of being a story needs to show the presence of a significant constituent of the operating principal of the law of inertia.  Why bring a well-defined set of dynamic principles regarding movement into any discussion of story without being called out for distraction?  Look at it this way, the Law of Inertia is clear about objects at rest and their tendency to remain at rest until a greater force propels the objects into movement.

Story either begins with or has well embedded in its backstory the equivalent of an object being nudged into motion, thus the destabilizing event or the point where a character's goal sets the character in motion toward achieving the goal. 

Objects in motion tend to stay in motion until opposing forces apply friction or collateral mischief by which the progress is either reversed or sent off course. The famed rock of Sisyphus demonstrates among other things the law of inertia in action. 

The doomed king must supply the inertia to get the rock up the hill, whereupon it gains the momentum to carry it to a point where it achieves a resting state. Same applies to Sisyphus, who must now get the rock back in position once again. If there were no hill, there would be no myth of Sisyphus; there would be another goal or task, another dramatic orbit.

The key to observing the myth of Sisyphus become the inertial condition of the rock.  A rock come to rest is a pivotal point on the story only in that it signals the need to push the rock out of its resting stage and into another cycle of movement. The key to essaying and absorbing the details of a story resides in the observation of the Law of Inertia. Opening velocity sets the story into being. 

Dramatic rules or laws require some form of opposition. Friction will do because friction is opposition to motion. Acceleration will more than suffice because story requires increased motion and, for a time, increased opposition.

Story requires a hill of enough angle to be seen as a difficult task for the protagonist. A major constituent of acceleration in a successful story involves change, either in the principal character or that individual's chief antagonist. Change can mean the rock, slowing down, coming to a standstill, or being pushed back to the top of the hill, yet again.

In story, characters either achieve their goal or fail in the attempt. In Inertia, objects that lose acceleration come to rest. When there is too much time between Sisyphus' rock losing its momentum, then reaching a resting state, the story is over; the reader seeks a new individual with a new wish for momentum.

On many occasions over the years, you have asked or been asked why the story stops here, the questions related to your own work the work of your students, or your editorial clients as an editor for a publisher or in your current circumstances as a consulting editor. Over these years, your answers have been multifarious, often more insightful to your students and clients than to your own work.

In one way or another, the answer was the same: the rock remained at rest too long, the momentum passed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Bragg's Cider Vinegar as Elixir

You first heard of--as opposed to learned about--The Dark Web (capitalized to make it sound more ominous) from two friends who have graduate-level degrees in computer programming. Then you saw mention of it in one of the left-leaning print publications, adding to the rumors of things one can find on The Dark Web with stories of right-wing conspiracy theories, white supremacist organizations, and ready access to conventional and designer drugs.

From rumor found in several sources and a few hours worth of your own attempts at research, you've built a profile that includes murder for hire, illegal weaponry, drugs, racism, prostitution, money laundering, and that one-size-fits-all marketplace in which one can hire what used to be called mercenaries or soldiers of fortune.

In your understanding of The Dark Web, it is nothing like the Internet, where one would log in, then surf through the vast offerings of the illegal, the despicable, the politically outrageous, and the mind boggling. 

Such sites and services do exist; they are accessible through the same kind of  Internet access the site of, say, Starbucks, is accessible, but in order to get the url of a given site, one needs to "know" someone who knows someone.

There are in fact some sites available through a Google or Yahoo search, using the key words Dark Web, but as such things go, the ones you've peered into don't seem all that dark or different from the sites you might find with greater ease on The Internet.

This is the background and subtext to your observation that the true Dark Web is easily found in the responses to most opinion sites, whether these are overtly political in nature or not. 

In one site, built around the use of a fruit called garcina cambogia and, of all things, Bragg's cider vinegar, to effect dramatic weight loss and a drop in the bad cholesterol level, you fund a digression in which all liberals were suddenly the cause of the terrible fix in which America now finds itself and in addition, Donald Trump's meme of "Lock her up," for Hillary was mild in comparison to some of the things said about HRC, and of the things that should be done to her.

An innocent critique of the recent Academy Awards televised spectacle brought forth Dark-Web-like attitudes and meanness of spirit, veering off in every direction, including political affiliations, gender bias, and flat-out racial bigotry, to say nothing at all of the rampant presence of homophobia.

The gifted American cartoonist Walt Kelly only made it for sixty years, leaving our midst in 1973, but by that time, his daily-and-Sunday strip, "Pogo," had a strong, devoted following. Kelly was more overt in his politics than Charles Schulz, whom you knew and admired for his eclectic reading tastes and love of conversation. 

Kelly's characters were denizens of the Okefenokee Swamp in Florida. One of his characters, you think it was the owl, made the observation in ironic counterpoint to Oliver H. Perry's observation, "We have met the enemy and they are ours," the painfully honest play on those words, "We have met the enemy, and they is us."

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Conversation without Comfort Zones Becomes Dialogue

During the course of a given day, when you are away from your writing area, and in particular when you are in a classroom, your conversation leans toward the comfortable and considerate, even at those times when you are expressing a difference of opinion. 

You have in place a filter that you've tweaked over the years, by no means in the sense of being politically correct, rather instead of being considerate.

Such thoughts of considerate conversation and a recent invitation to dinner combined forces when you were preparing for a two- or three-part presentation on dialogue, in no small measure because of your reason for refusing the dinner invitation, your awareness of the host's cooking abilities notwithstanding.

Whenever the topic shifts from conversation to dialogue, an elephant wends its way into the living room, whereupon it sinks to its knees, then attempts to cover itself with the closest rug , in most cases leaving more uncovered than not.  "Ah, I see you allow elephants in the living room. How nice that you allow them to take the chill off with a rug."

Given your recent preoccupation with triangulation, when conversation shifts to dialogue, the point of reference to be avoided is the elephant, which in this case becomes the metaphor for comfort zone.

Your living quarters, smaller these past going-on-seven years, are well insulated from adjoining walls, meaning few neighborly sounds. Perhaps a bit chilly during the winter months, but a heater tends to that, while, in the summer, a cross-ventilation makes for the right ambient temperature. Nearby washer/dryer. Sufficient light and privacy, interesting views outside each window. A veritable comfort zone. Difficult not to feel comfortable when you are "in," either for working, reading, eating, or listening to music.

Your own sense of a comfort zone includes being away from disturbances and yet able to connect via Internet, telephone, or any variation with new experiences, even experiences contrary to your own and certainly opinions and beliefs contrary to your own. You appreciate a lively exchange of opinion, however at variance with your own, and in a growing recognition, you enjoy the discomfort of well-expressed critical commentary on your beliefs, your work, your demeanor.

Dialogue pushes the comfort zone, sometimes sweeping it entirely aside with its rancorous, undermining persistence. When characters appear too mindful of the comfort zone, unless this is done with deliberation by the writer in the service of a notable effect, story stops short, the way you are sometimes forced to do while driving in city traffic. 

At such moments, most of the books, magazines, water bottles, items of food in the process of being ingested, and more often than not your cell phone take on a life of their own, not realizing they should have stopped. 

The laws of inretia take precedence over the rules and conventions of dramatic narrative. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Story, a product of movement, stays in motion until a sudden break causes it to stop, whereupon chaos beyond disorder.

Well-planned inertia can take you out of your comfort zone, show you something you'd not previously considered, then help you understand how comfort zones are mere way stations from which to experiment, improvise, and imagine.

Well-executed dialogue begins with the recognition that there are no hand rails or supports; you're out there without your iPhone and its potential for calling help, consulting Google maps, or latching on to some GPS guidance.

With well-executed dialogue, you are in the midst of strangers, all of whom seem to know your name, or you find yourself, as if in a dream, among persons whom you believe you know--but they respond to you as though you were a stranger. Neither approach is comfortable.

But think about it this way: When you come to sudden turns in your reading that no longer seem plausible, your response at setting the material aside is anything but polite conversation.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Story as Bucking Bronc or Brahma Bull

You are of an age wherein you can recall the times you read stories that began with "It was an ordinary day in," or "It was an ordinary day until" as a prelude for what has become known as the destabilizing event. 

Here in the twenty-first century, such openings are neither necessary nor tolerated; when we come across such an opening, depending on who the author is, we are either seized with a sense of nostalgia--in which case we continue reading--or antipathy--in which case we set the work aside.

Here in the teens of the twenty-first century, the reader has the option of signing onto the cruise on which the story will embark, or looking for some other dramatic access to the world of fiction.

 In consequence, you and your late pal, Digby Wolfe, embarked on a project to be called The Dramatic Genome, which predicates among other wry observations that readers or viewers of drama have innate wiring that leads them to escape the rag-tag world of chaos found in Reality, seeking greater senses of order and purpose.

Although the specific idea for The Dramatic Genome came to you in the twenty-first century, indeed across large portions of vongole e linguine, at The Via Maestra, each of you in his own way had improvised and riffed on the notion of the appeal of some form of storytelling to some form of humanity at some distant or more recent moment in time.  One of Wolfe's favorite times for imagining audiences for story was around 400 BCE, with the early performances of Aristophanes play, The Frogs.

For your part, you still delight in imagining a Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon hunting clan coming home after a difficult trek in search of an aurrox or woolly mammoth to bring, first down, then home to feed the group and provide hides for clothing or the equivalent of footwear. While their trove was being butchered and cooked, the group would gather about the fire to hear accounts of how this kill was spotted, tracked, and brought down.

Life was fraught and difficult then, no less so in 400 BCE, and for certain, modern implements to the contrary notwithstanding, modern life is a hive of chaos in which its denizens are aware of complex inner and external demands for their attention, compliance, and performance. We turn to the book, the magazine, the e-reader, the TV screen, the surround sound motion picture theater, and, in all its incarnations, the stage, whence we essay the soothing enticements of a world where orderly results are possible.

We are not completely naive in our assessments; orderly results may be possible for others, but not necessarily for us. The best we can do is empathize, identify, root for the characters, thinking how nice it would be if we could cut through some of the bureaucratic red tape of Reality.

Whatever the venue, when we see the lead character in the process of experiencing the destabilizing event, often because said lead character wanted something or someone with enough passion to create opening velocity, we are the equivalent of a bull rider at a rodeo, seated atop a mightily irate bull, in a narrow stall, one hand gripping the reins, nodding to the individual working the gate to open the latch that will allow the bull to plunge forth into the arena.

Story is not about description; it is about the charging, bucking bull or bronco, striving to recapture somehow the sense of calm or near serenity of routine before the significant destabilizing event played out. Feelings, agendas, and strategic deployment burst forth in an unceasing pulse of action, where change is evoked rather than deployed in each scene.

You recall the look of your students when you announce that each scene must earn its way into its narrative by evoking at least one emotion and demonstrating some shift or advancement of power, a look that asks, "How are we supposed to do that?"  As though they might find another instructor who is not so set in his vision.

But all the while you were morphing from your teens and your ardent desire to tell stories of your own, until you have reached the age of which you are now, you've been digging your knees into the sides of that bull or bronc, trying to stay on for the longest eight seconds of your life.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Put a Little Elephant in the Dialogue

When you first heard the term "triangulation," you were were in a drafty room of the Men's Gym at UCLA, drowsing your way through mandated classes in Reserve Officer's Training Corps, fixed in your notion that ROTC produced one of the more disagreeable products of a military life, the second lieutenant.

For a matter of the four or five classes in which triangulation was presented, and the topographical maps used to demonstrate and embed the techniques were distributed, your interest awakened, became charged with the notable enthusiasm of a student who wants to learn more, and who is excited by what he has learned to date.  

At the most basic level, triangulation provides an observer who knows two fixed locations with the means to calculate the distance of a third location of doubtful position.  On the basis of what you learned in that drafty room, you were also able to learn from your astronomy professor how triangulation is put to practical use in the gaping vastness of the space in which our universe and yet other universes orbit.

There was one temporary downside of triangulation, one in which you came to see how you might not have had the difficulties you had in dealing with geometry, when it was first presented to you. 

Over all, you came away from your classroom experiences with triangulation feeling the chipper optimism of a young person who saw possibilities for dealing with the vast randomness inflicted by Reality. You were haunted by lines from Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," where in "Full many a rose is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air."

The concept of triangulation emerged later in your life, during the tenure as POTUS of Bill Clinton, who used the approach for political negotiations, for building consensus necessary to effect legislation or accords.

More recently, triangulation found its way into your thinking as a useful tool for an integral part of dramatic narrative and your own relationship to that integral part as a user of it, which is to say as a writer of it, but also as one who has edited that aspect of dramatic narrative as an editor, and as one who has attempted to convey the use of the integral part as a teacher.  The dramatic aspect of which you speak is dialogue.

Early in your dealings with your own writings, you tended to regard dialogue as carefully managed conversation, troubled in the way your dialogue emerged as lacking something you were always able to find in the dialogue of John O'Hara, but not able to, as Mark Twain, another splendid renderer of dialogue, would say, "get the hang of it."

Triangulation caught up with you and your attempts to reach that third place, that unseen presence of such vibrant effect in the hands of the writers you most admire.  Here, in Reality, we talk with the Teflon coating on, over our true feelings, tempered by our wish to be such things as civil, polite, observant of one or more social conventions.

John O'Hara, more so than Ernest Hemingway, spoke to the elephant in the living room everyone in his stories and novels appeared to tiptoe around, doing so in such a way that the reader could see the elephant of intent and the dance to avoid revealing the bareness of the intent of the hidden nature of the agenda.

Then along came Philip Roth, who seemed to you to be dramatizing the numerous ways in which individuals were struggling to articulate what they felt, to grasp the true meaning of what others were saying, and, in consequence, being pulled along in the slipstream of story in much the same way you felt pulled when the VW Beetles you drove from the mid 50s through the early 70s were pulled when passed on the highway by an eighteen wheeler.

In your longtime admiration for the novels and short stories of Elmore Leonard and your opportunities, both when you worked for his paperback publisher and when he was a frequent visitor to the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference during the years of your tenure there, the metaphoric pigeons of dialogue came home to roost.

"Write a conversation between any two persons of your choice," you tell your students, "in which they speak with direct, open, literal honesty. Try to remember times when you ever heard real persons talking that way. Try to recall writers you admire presenting such dialogue."  Then you wait for the implications to sink in and the often revealing comments about the assignment.

"Now write a scene," you continue, "in which two individuals, who might be male/female, female/female, or male/male have met on some online dating site and are conversing about their romantic goals and ideals. Assume that one of the reasons this pair had some flicker of attraction each to the other, was because of a mutual love of and ownership of horses. The fondness for horses is the triangulation point.  Individual A compares self to a thoroughbred, being used to the kind of care and training associated with thoroughbred horses, but seeking in a mate the equivalent of a quarter horse or working horse, or even a wild horse.  These two individuals are in effect each trying to seduce the other with their comparisons of self to a particular kind of horse.  Write the scene and see if the couple decides to have a second date."

All that's missing from conversational, lackluster dialogue is the subtext, the unspoken influences on what is said and what is not said.